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What Happens When Policy Is Made By Corporations? Your Privacy Is Seen As A Barrier To Economic Growth

(EUROPE)  With all eyes on Greece, the European parliament has quietly passed a non-binding resolution on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the controversial trade liberalisation agreement between the United States and Europe. Ironically, it did so a few hours after lecturing Alexis Tsipras, the Greek leader, about the virtues of European solidarity and justice.

If enacted, TTIP, along with two other treaties currently under negotiation– the Trade in Services Agreement (TISA) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement (TPP) – will considerably limit the ability of governments to rein in the activities of corporations; all three treaties have predictably triggered much resistance.

The European parliament’s resolution seeks to eliminate the main point of contention between the US and Europe. While many Europeans object to the very idea of creating an international tribunal, where corporations can sue governments for passing business-unfriendly laws, the European parliament has proposed to turn this tribunal into a public European institution. Some such institutions do have teeth – consider the recent “right to be forgotten” judgment from the European court of justice – but this can’t be taken for granted.

This surely won’t be the end of opposition to the treaties, though. One overlooked aspect of the emerging legal architecture that they enact is that, barring a Greece-like rebellion from the citizens, Europe will eventually sacrifice its strong and much-cherished commitment to data protection. This protectionist stance – aimed, above all, at protecting citizens from excessive corporate and state intrusion – is increasingly at odds with the “grab everything” mentality of contemporary capitalism.

A recent op-ed penned by Carl Bildt, the perennial hawk of Swedish politics and now also chair of the Global Commission on Internet Governance, a thinktank, captures that neoliberal mentality quite accurately. According to Bildt: “Barriers against the free flow of data are, in effect, barriers against trade.” By the same token, building fences around your house is also an offence against capitalism. Who knows what kinds of advertising deals could be made with your data?

Of course, if the only stick to measure our technology policy is how well it advances the interests of corporations, then there’s much to dislike about data protection and virtually all privacy laws. And soon this very well might be our only stick: the most hideous aspect of the three trade agreements currently under negotiation is precisely that they describe a world devoid of any other political actors; it’s just companies out there. Then, a plethora of op-eds and thinktank reports – many of them published with industry funding – rush to validate such framings by claiming that the treaties do not go far enough to consider all the other factors that affect trade and economic growth – once again, as if there is no world outside the corporate bubble.

Take Uncovering the Hidden Value of Digital Trade: Towards a 21st Century Agenda of Transatlantic Prosperity, a recent report published by two high-profile thinktanks – the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI) in Washington and the Lisbon Council in Brussels. It doesn’t even bother to say that what citizens want is bad or unachievable; it is simply written as if they didn’t exist.

Its provenance is telling. The PPI, established in the early 1990s to inject neoliberal ideas into the presidency of Bill Clinton, has emerged as one of the key advocates of hawkish US foreign policy and a cheerleader for America’s global economic dominance. The Lisbon Council has a more intriguing story. First, there’s its funding: its recent donors include the likes of Google, HP, IBM and Oracle.

Then there’s its actual policy influence: Ann Mettler, its co-founder and, until last year, its executive director, has been put in charge of the European Policy Strategy Centre, an internal policy thinktank for the European commission.

The joint report is worth reading, if only for the boldness of its assumptions. The authors argue that Europe lags behind the US on something they define as “digital density” – the level at which countries consume, process and share data. But, they argue, if only six of Europe’s leading economies were to raise their “digital density” to match the American level, they would produce €460bn of additional economic output per year. Yes, it’s true: privacy – one of the main barriers to high “digital density” – is also one of the barriers to economic recovery. We should all open up – so that Google and IBM could prosper faster.

Not surprisingly, the report urges Europe to rethink its commitment to reforming data protection laws – even if revised, argue the authors, they will be too suffocating. Worse, as some European politicians have balked at making trade in data part of the TTIP agreement, the authors propose a compromise of sorts: they argue that we need to establish a “Geneva Convention on the Status of Data”, which can exist outside of the TTIP and still reassure the Europeans that making trade deals with America won’t water down their data protection laws. In light of the brazen transgressions of the actual Geneva conventions by the Bush administration, this is probably not very reassuring to most Europeans. It won’t take long for American lawyers to find the privacy equivalent of waterboarding: some border-case scenario, which would greenlight horrible abuses.

Governments, however, won’t lose much under this new configuration; they will find a way to manipulate the new treaties to their advantage. The US, once again, leads the way, demanding significant exceptions on matters of national security.

An important appendix to the TISA has recently been leaked by WikiLeaks (despite all the excitement about open data, the drafts are still kept away from the public). It contains a US-proposed section on national security and hints at what might be in the offing. The section states that, regardless of what other articles of the treaty might say, nothing should prevent a government from “taking any action which it considers necessary for the protection of its own essential security interests”. This, more or less, is the level of generality in which these treaties are written: there’s no definition of “essential”, let alone “security” or “interest”.

The future advocated by the industry-funded thinktanks that actually shape the global policy agenda is exceedingly grim, whatever funky spin they add to it. Essentially, citizens not only won’t have a right to privacy but their very attempts to hide something will be interpreted as either an offence against free trade or as an effort to undermine national security. But even if citizens vote to elect a government that promises to reverse this despicable trend, that government itself is likely to be sued out of it; the treaties will contain all the necessary legal instruments to do so. The 21st century of transatlantic prosperity has arrived, indeed.